REVIEW: Nivelli’s War, Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Sometimes, a story comes along that simply must be told.  Nivelli’s War certainly falls into that category.  Written by Charles Way and directed by Paul Bosco McEneaney, this inspired play makes its way onto the Belfast stage on the way to its Broadway debut.  

Nivelli's War

Based on a true story, Nivelli’s War explores the tragedy of war, the bonds of friendship and the mystery of magic as seen through memories shared with the audience by an aging magician (played by Dan Gordon), who stands before us on the stage.  With the aid of a very simple backdrop that includes some smoke, a red balloon and an old wooden cart, the scene is poignantly set for the story that begins to unfold.  

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We begin to see that our tired and confused magician at the edge of the stage is none other than the Great Nivelli himself, as the stage is taken over by what seems to be a memory.  The audience soon finds itself being transported past the almost empty stage and into World War II Germany as seen through the eyes of a young boy named Ernst (played by Jack Archer).

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Forced to leave his home and his mother (played by Emma Deegan) to stay with his Tante Sophie (played by Maggie Cronin) in the country, Ernst meets a mysterious wanderer (played by Bob Kelly) and befriends him after he is left alone at the end of the war.  

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When asked his name, the man leaves it to the boy to assign him one and is soon dubbed Mr. H.  Despite his reservations, he takes pity on young Ernst and agrees to get him back to his home in Frankfurt.  Thus, they embark on an enlightening journey fraught with danger and a sense of desperation.

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Along the way, we begin to see a bond between the two begin to form as Mr. H. demonstrates his abilities as a magician to win over a pair of ill intended Russian soldiers.  Ernst is fascinated and becomes intent on learning, a wish that Mr. H accommodates as they continue their journey.  We see later in the play that Ernst has been an apt pupil as he uses the magic he has learned to charm two American soldiers on behalf of Mr. H.

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Having seen Ernst through on his journey home, Mr. H. then fades back into the darkness from which he came, but not before telling Ernst the secret of who he really is, a former shop owner named Levin.  It is in this moment that we realise why Mr. H. is so secretive of his identity and why he chooses to return to a certain level of anonymity.  Having survived the horrors of being a Jewish holocaust victim in Nazi Germany, we can imagine the horrors he has experienced.

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Though of a serious nature, the play still manages some truly touching and funny moments.  We learn the many variations of shrugging and share in Ernst’s childlike enthusiasm for the magic tricks of Mr. H.  The shadows, smoke and grayscale colours set the tone for the somber war them.  Conversely, hints of vivid colour paint Ernst’s most beloved memories – his mother’s red dress, a juicy red apple when he is hungry or the red balloon filled with magic wonder.  We see them as glimmers of hope in bleak surroundings.

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While the scenery is minimal, the story is sophisticated and the characters, complex.  The delicate piano music created by the gifted Garth McConaghie can be heard playing between scenes and holds its own magic in helping weave this extraordinary tale performed by an amazing cast of actors who give it a life all its own.  

The cast of talented actors come together seamlessly to create the magic that defines this incredible play, each giving their characters a unique voice.  Though not previously listed, we’d be remiss not to mention the outstanding performances of Faolan Morgan (Stage Manager / Butler / Soldier), Michael Lavery (Mr Dethier / Soldier) and Charlotte McCurry (The Princess).

Presented by Cahoots, NI and Lyric Theatre, the play is highly recommended for the entire family (recommended for ages 7+).  You can catch it here in Belfast at the Lyric Theatre from 3 March – 19 March 2017 before it moves on to the New Victory Theater in New York from 28 April – 11 May 2017 for it’s debut run on Broadway.